Thoughts on Academic Career Structures

Jianwei Li, head and torso, photograph in front of trees

Jianwei Li, Collegium researcher and group leader in MediCity

Discussions on academic career structures have recently become popular in Germany, a leading country in science and technology. The #IchBinHanna Twitter hashtag emerged in the German academic society in the summer of 2021. The discussion was triggered by a two-minute video made by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The video was conceived to tell the story of how to find a permanent academic position in Germany. As a result, BMBF received extremely large amounts of protests about the academic career structures in Germany. The German Federal Statistical Office suggested that in 2019 87% of academics were working on fixed-term contracts. Everyone knows that the fixed-term contracts force the employee to move every few years. Temporary contracts increase feelings of insecurity in the researchers and inhibits scientific innovation, as high-risk projects need a stable academic environment.

Similar problems also exist at universities in Finland. Many researchers are paid either by the funding linked to the career stage (i.e. postdoctoral researcher funding or research fellow funding from the Academy of Finland) or by the overhead return from their project funding. However, no-one can guarantee that funding applications would be continuously successful. Anyone with a fixed short-term contract at the university may become unemployed, which in turn puts tremendous pressure on the researchers livelihood. These researchers may even feel it to be unfair, when some researchers or lectures have permanent contracts albeit failing in securing funding at times. If no changes are made to such an unsound academic structure, what will we expect to obtain from science?

It is understandable that the short-term contracts may push and motivate researchers working harder under stress and the permanent contract may give rise to low efficiency. This is a situation where two extremes exist. A balanced academic structure must be achieved to ensure sustainable development. Must the permanent be eternal and the temporary instant? Researchers with temporal contracts must be supported, should they have failed many years to secure external funding. Why not give researchers with temporary contracts a few more years to establish themselves, have they already proven their ability to get funding? Competition is strong and cruel in academia. I believe that a dynamic and flexible structure will bring academic prosperity. The dynamics and flexibility make science interesting and trigger research careers. We should not forget this, and administrators should not ignore it.

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One Response to Thoughts on Academic Career Structures

  1. Michiel Meeusen says:

    “Academic careers are like avocados. Underripe or overripe but never quite right. Also: expensive and unsustainable…”

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